Featured image: The Crowded Cell by Nasrin Parvaz
I’ve just got back from seeing the “Our Lives” exhibition at the Fishslab Gallery in Whitstable, where I was shown around by the inimitable Kate Adams, co-organiser and caseworker for Kent Refugee Help.
For those of you who weren’t able to see it, it was an exhibition of paintings by foreign national prisoners and ex-prisoners, taken from a variety of sources. The exhibition was on display from the 1st to the 7th of May, and was opened by our MP, Rosie Duffield.
Amongst the artists were Nasrin Parvez, a political exile who spent many years in prison in Iran for campaigning for women’s rights, and Everal Hall, a member of the Windrush generation.
Other artists included Kadour Milnyali, an Algerian exile with indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and Abdul Haroun, a Sudanese refugee, most famous for the fact that he walked 31 miles through the Channel Tunnel, risking his life, before he was finally caught just half a mile from the exit in Folkestone.
Also amongst the exhibits were a number of poems, including one by Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian woman with dual nationality currently held in prison in Iran, supposedly for plotting against the Iranian regime.
Here it is, in its entirety:
The diagonal light falling on my bed
Tells me that there is another autumn on the way
A child turned three
The bars of the prison grew around us
So unjustly and fearlessly
And we left our dreams behind them
We walked on the stairs that led to captivity
Our night time stories remained unfinished
And lost in the silence of the night
Nothing is the same here
And without you even fennel tea loses its odour.
Now here is an observation. I’m certain that there are few people who would not be moved by Nazanin’s poem, so touching is it, so evocative of a life made intolerable by the torture of captivity. Nor would they remain unmoved by her plight, a British citizen held in captivity by an oppressive regime, isolated from her family, and in exile from her home.
On the other hand I’m guessing that that far fewer would be sympathetic to the foreign national prisoners held captive here in the UK, whose work makes up the bulk of this exhibition.
These must be amongst the most despised people in Britain today, the most discriminated against, constantly being demonised by the press and used as scapegoats by right wing politicians.
But they too have their stories to tell. Many of them have been traumatised by war, by deprivation, by loss. They have said goodbye to the lands of their birth, leaving friends and family behind. They have crossed countries and seas to get here, travelling many thousands of miles, often risking their lives in the process.
Once here they have ended up in prison. For some, like Abdul Haroun, this has been as a direct consequence of their journey. Others may have been incarcerated under immigration regulations. Or they may be former unaccompanied minors, or people who came over with their parents when very young, or undocumented or stateless people drawn into crime.
Whatever the case, they are often facing deportation and are in need of help; not to say, a friendly face and a sympathetic ear. This is where Kent Refugee Help comes in. For the last ten years this small, user-led charity has been helping migrants in detention throughout Kent, doing the work that the rest of us would probably prefer to ignore.
So it’s hats off to Kent Refugee Help for all their work supporting this most overlooked and under represented group. And hats off too to Kate Adams and Bahriye Kemal for organising the exhibition, which Kate described as one of the best things she’s ever done.
Art is a way of telling stories. Art can be the key that unlocks the heart. It allows us entry into another’s life, and into the hidden processes that may force people from their homes.
Because we are prisoners of our own prejudice. Sometimes it takes a prisoner to set us free.
All images from the exhibition © the artist.
For more information please go to: https://kentrefugeehelp.org.uk/
From The Whitstable Gazette 17/05/18
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